Tuesday, March 6, 2018

If There is a Center, Can it Hold?

In 1919, at the close of WWI with the unbelievable horror of European civilization torn to shreds, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote a poem, “The Second Coming.”  Here’s the first stanza of the most widely read version :
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
The text of the second stanza is in some dispute, but it’s clear that Yeats feared whatever was coming next, the second coming, would be worse than what they had just been through.  He was right, and maybe it’s not over yet.  Political events and human anxieties have generated unfavorable signs in the U.S. and elsewhere. 

In response, well meaning FB posts have declared that what the nation needs is (a return to?) Jesus, with the not so subtle demand that the coercive power of the state be used to restore a form of Christian prayer to public schools and other public gatherings.  I want to suggest another way.  Let all who claim the name Christian recommit themselves to following where Jesus has led, demonstrating their faith not only in words, but in their lives as agents of peace, healing and reconciliation, serving the needs of those most in need, condemning no one, welcoming all, and strengthening the bonds of our common humanity.  Don’t worry so much about what others do or don’t believe.  It can’t be forced, and it’s not that important.  Let your light so shine that they may see your good works and give thanks to God because of it. 

What surprises me is that many, perhaps most, of those who want the state to bring Jesus back into the public life of the nation are deeply suspicious of government, and want it to stay out of their business.  Favoring a forceful libertarian agenda for themselves, vigorously defending their right to freedom from government oversight, they show little concern for using state coercion to strip rights from others.  It sounds contradictory, but consider the contradictions between anti-abortion and stand your ground laws they tend to favor.  One would strip women of the right to make decisions about their own bodies on the grounds that embryonic human life is more sacred than theirs.  The other preserves the right to kill anyone who vaguely poses a perceived danger to one’s self.  Consider another contradiction: the demand, in the name of freedom, for enforced adherence to imaginary fifty year old social standards of morality is dependent on and defensive of authoritarian political leaders whose immorality and criminality appear to have no limits.  How can this be?

A part of it may be that the remembered social and economic stability of times decades past, anchored as they were in established institutions that could be relied on to function in predictable ways, is a loss too great to bear.  That those remembered times did not really exist is irrelevant: they are remembered as if they had.  Living, as they believe they do, in a time when nothing seems established, and no institution can be relied upon to function with predictability, they long for the security of a time that never was.  In the name of preserving liberty, they’re willing to lose their freedom to get it.  It may be what Yeats anticipated, and what, indeed, came to pass.

The fearful anxiety generated by a comforting remembrance of the past, a present one doesn’t understand and can’t control, and a future that lacks all predictability, can be overwhelming to body, mind and soul.  Years ago, I saw a variation of the intense desire for social stability when doing a demographic study of the neighborhood served by the church I worked for on the Upper East Side of New York City.  Looking at what were then young adults in their 20s and 30s, we found an overwhelming hunger to be able to stand on something that would not keep moving under their feet.   Technology, even then, was changing too fast to keep up with; job demands kept changing, and job security was non existent; social relationships for young singles were competitive, with temporary winners and permanent losers; young marrieds discovered the cost of starting a family drained resources from whatever dream of material success they harbored.  Even the church couldn’t be relied on.  Either it was the fortified redoubt of stodgy elders, or it was changing as fast as every other institution, with nothing of permanent value to impart.  

The point is, the desire for stability and predictability is deeply rooted in us all.  It may be one reason why some people are attracted to churches, or religions, that promise unassailable, incontrovertible truth housed in institutions that appear to change very slowly, or not at all.  In my own community there appears to be an ebb and flow between the local (conservative) Roman Catholic and evangelical churches.  People unhappy with one, go to the other.  Each asserts they are the fount of unchangeable truth, and that, rather than theology, is the essential attraction.  The occasional syphoning from more progressive congregations are of people I presume to be skittish about all the changes they see about them, and want a place that adheres to old time social values, however unrelated they may be to the gospel. 

On the other hand, for many it means giving up on religion altogether.  Whatever the Church is, whatever Christianity is, whatever religion is, it has no verifiable truth to offer, no solid place to stand, and by it conditions of life are unaffected one way or the other.  So why bother?

It is in the midst of this that the siren voice of a secular leader who cries out “I alone can fix it,” may be worth a try.  At least it’s different.  Maybe the firm hand of authority will calm things down, make things more predictable again.  Paraphrasing one of my strongly libertarian friends, he says he’s tired of two handed leaders who keep saying “on the one hand this, but on the other hand that.”  He wants a one handed leader who will say one thing and do it with authority.  Most of all, he wants his right to live free of government interference guaranteed by the coercive power of government to make it be so.  It can’t happen as he would like.  What will become of our country is not yet clear.  There is well publicized movement away from right wing libertarian populism that has been sliding dangerously toward authoritarian rule.  But it remains to be seen whether there is enough cohesion in interests favoring classical liberal values to restore a reasonably stable government of center right, center left competition.  


Can the center hold?  I’ll end where I began.  The U.S. and its politics is not at the center.  Neither are anxieties about unpredictability, changing social values, nostalgia for a time that never was.  Forget about whether the nation needs Jesus, it’s Christians who need Jesus.  Don’t worry about what others do or don’t believe.  For us, it’s God, as we know God in Christ Jesus, who is the center, not of our time or place, but of all times and places.  In the vortex of authoritarian rule, civil war, domestic injustices, and an unpredictable future, it is Christus Rex/Christus Victor who proclaims the center that holds.  It’s what Holy Week and Easter are all about.  By all means believe, but believing has value only if one follows where he has led, and that means becoming agents of God’s healing grace, even in the midst of political chaos.  It means boldly opposing forces of injustice and oppression, while vigorously strengthening the bonds of our common humanity, advocating civil law that recognizes and protects them.  It means being political.   

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